Christmases with Frank Sinatra are Delightful, If Confusing
By Kristin Battestella
Recently I’ve been fortunate enough to cross two albums off my ‘Christmas Albums to Get’ list, both Old Blue Eyes himself: Christmas Songs by Sinatra and A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra. Although both albums have a timeless swanky and spirit enough for the Season, repeat songs, alternate takes, and varying track times add a little head scratching to these holiday hits.
Originally released in 1948, this CD reissue of Christmas Songs by Sinatra opens with a crooning White Christmas. The listings call it and several others an ‘alternate take’, but this tune sounds just perfectly post-war and early Sinatra mellow whatever the recording. Those more intimate with his later swinging style might find the pace sweeter, but the tone works magically with the winter memories and sets the mood for the rest of the album. It is however unusual to have the often concluding Silent Night as the second track here. The quiet carol continues the slow and sentimental tone and almost serves as a dual lead in- the spiritual debut to White Christmas’ secular entrance- as Christmas Songs by Sinatra is a fairly even split between the reverent and the casual. Billed by its Latin name despite the standard O Come All Ye Faithful lyrics, Adeste Fideles is slightly more upbeat and lightens the crèche whilst keeping the big notes respectful.
Jingle Bells is not as happening or juvenile as we might expect, but its still easy breezy fun with background singers and titular sounds jazzing it up with Frank. Sometimes this seasonal staple can get a little obnoxious, but Frank keeps it timeless and urbane here. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is of course, perfectly quintessential for the melancholy at this time of year- whether you are alone, far from family, or having a quiet moment by yourself at the end of festive and frenzied day. Unfortunately, different versions of the brooding ballad also appear on the companion A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra and the compilation Christmas with the Rat Pack, and ironically, the confusion adds to the holiday frustrations.
Thankfully, Christmas Dreaming (A Little Early this Year) is a wonderfully soft and slow December ballad. Again, the slower crooning style and lingering easy notes serve Frank and the not oft-heard tune well. It’s perfectly holiday neutral and great for a slow dance by the fire. Christmas Songs by Sinatra smartly raises and lowers its pace and spirituality by alternately pairing similar sounding carols and winter pop. The overall tone sounds the same, creating an agreeable evening listen despite the pleasant but changing subject matter. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear also adds choir echoes and accompaniment verses as Frank takes his sweet, pleasing time and gives this carol a lullaby feeling instead of the quick, church single verse we usually get today- if it all. But of course, this one is another alternate version and time changer from Christmas with the Rat Pack and A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra and runs almost a minute longer than those tracks.
Oh Little Town of Bethlehem is also a slow, brooding, perhaps too slow carol. Frank keeps it stylish rather than Victorian serious and these two carols fit together for some solid and quiet reverence. However, the pair also makes the listener realize that there aren’t many fast tracks on the set, and that’s where the hip and lively Santa Claus is Coming to Town enters to shake up Christmas Songs by Sinatra. Great cymbals and a swinging interlude transform this kid’s deterrent into a groovy danceable. Get out your saddle shoes and toe tap before the Yule log with these big hepcat notes! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! continues the smile on your face seasonal swing, too. It isn’t loud and too fast to enjoy, but warm, fun, and as the background singers say, ‘Cozy coo.’
Though the General Reynolds Introduction always scares my cat, these vocal carryovers of the day are perfect winter wartime recollections. Sixty years ago, it may have been the norm to hear live recordings and the performers talking amid the tunes, but today this simplicity becomes a great sentimental treat. We’re listening to a radio broadcast on Christmas Eve! Unfortunately, the subsequent Medley of Oh Little Town of Bethlehem, Joy to the World, and White Christmas is somewhat strange. Albeit this is the quick crooning standard edition, but we just heard Oh Little Town of Bethlehem two tracks ago. The Joy to the World rendition is a lovely but brief and choir dominated chorus before Frank returns with another choir-shared White Christmas quickie. It’s a squeezed in and odd mix of religious and secular when there are so many more great songs to do instead, and obviously, these last five tracks stem from another session. All that aside, the medley still sounds nice, and this unusual placement nonetheless compliments the rolling reverence and secular pattern of Christmas Songs by Sinatra.
Next, the serious and subdued maternal ode Ave Marie slows the album down once again. It’s great to hear Frank Sinatra sing in Latin, complete with a rising choir and slowly building instruments. Sure, he may not have the big pipes for the most difficult notes here, but the respect is evident and lovely nevertheless. By contrast, Winter Wonderland adds a little bit of fun and winds down the album with some jokes and casual seasonal swing. Again alluding to the shared spiritual and secular of Christmas Songs by Sinatra, The Chairman himself reminds us to take time for the Truth of the season before The Lord’s Prayer finishes the set in solid and lofty Catholic fashion. Another church tune perhaps stretching Sinatra’s range, but the big notes are all his, with none of today’s spectacular or overdone production needed to understand the meaning here.
Despite both albums being evenly divided between carols and secular tunes, Christmas Songs by Sinatra feels slightly more reverent and balanced than A Jolly Christmas with Frank Sinatra. A very upbeat Jingle Bells kicks off this 1957 reissue, which has also been released in several CD editions as The Sinatra Christmas Album. The quick pulses and scat spelling of the eponymous track will be as polarizing for some as chasing the assorted re-release covers and album bonus tracks. At almost 40 seconds shorter than traditional version on Christmas Songs by Sinatra, the yeah yeah and hip hip festive is a bit too rowdy and in your face. Frank sounds a little hollow, as if his recording wasn’t done in the studio at the same time as the jazzy backup players. I get that they’re setting up the jolly of A Jolly Christmas with Frank Sinatra, but it’s a bit too over the top. Ironically, this is also the only fast song here.
Thankfully, The Christmas Song is much, much better- a lovely, airy, and sentimental vintage from seasons’ yore without all the extra hype. Perfect. Likewise, Mistletoe and Holly, the first of several tracks repeated on the more recent Christmas with the Rat Pack compilation, has that quintessential Sinatra sound. You can’t help but sing along as each refrain comes around. I’ll be Home for Christmas continues the on-form bittersweet, and it’s also found on the Rat Pack album, albeit with a few seconds time difference. Alternate versions are frustrating, yes. However, sometimes rare tracks are quite worthwhile and unique, or at the least, somewhat understandable. But what’s the point in shaving off 3 seconds here or 5 seconds there? Where do those missing seconds go go go?
There are different openings for The Christmas Waltz here and its appearance on Christmas with the Rat Pack, but there’s simply still no denying Frank’s secular seasonal sway here. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is just about perfect. This rerecorded winter brood is longer than the rendition on Christmas Songs by Sinatra by almost a minute, with a cold start, extra choir refrains, and longer melancholy from Frank. And just in case you couldn’t guess, yep, this one’s on Christmas with the Rat Pack, too!
The First Noel is the first carol in this second half of spiritualness on A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra, and though it feels a little too slow, reverent, and out of place in the swinging Rat Pack compilation, this quick mellow refrain fits in here. Likewise, Hark the Herald Angels Sing felt forced and restrained in the Rat Pack mix, but together, these carols work almost like a sing a long caroling medley. And speaking of medleys, we were treated to two Oh Little Town of Bethlehem renditions on Christmas Songs by Sinatra, but this version on A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra is about a minute shorter, ixnaying on the super slow but keeping the Biblical basics and choir accompaniment nice and easy. Despite having the same track time, Adeste Fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful), is not the same version as on Christmas Songs by Sinatra. It’s strange to listen to the same song over and over again back to back for the choir additions and vocal differences here. It’s kind of fun, but a bit crazy, and I’m sure annoying to someone else forced to listen in the month of Twelve Days of Christmas and Must be Santa.
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear feels a little stilted amid Frank’s effortless and breezy secular staples and is dominated by more choir than Sinatra, but it’s still lovely. Like Christmas Songs by Sinatra, grouping the seasonal hits and reverent tracks in patterns together works much better than the seemingly spliced and random reissue of Christmas with the Rat Pack. Some melancholy pop, a block of carols for reverence- the mix of swing and serious stays sophisticated for today’s listener. Another shorter rerecord, Silent Night is a fitting and darling crèche lullaby to conclude A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra in a soft crescendo. With a set of perfectly timeless downhearted hits and respectful carols, it turns out A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra doesn’t seem that jolly of an album. Instead of all the rerecords, alternate versions, and track repeats, I’d rather have, you know, more holiday recordings by Frank Sinatra, but that’s life- no pun intended.
Neither Christmas Songs by Sinatra nor A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra have the loosely holiday tune I Believe as does Christmas with the Rat Pack. However, the edition of A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra that I picked up in a two-disc combo set with Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas contains two unusual bonus tracks- not the expected reissue single versions of White Christmas and The Christmas Waltz, no. It may seem a little silly to have Come Fly with Me playing in December, but having this jazzy hit randomly pop up in my Christmas playlist is actually kind of nice. It’s a happy, mini moment to getaway from the dark and serious, stressful and crazy Yule we make for ourselves these days. Likewise, Let’s Get Away from it All provides a jiffy of holiday detox and laughter, even if it’s just over the way Frank says ‘Chowda!’ I’m usually pretty strict about listening to Christmas music at Christmas time- after all, you can’t listen to it any other time- but at this point, I don’t mind these two tacked on Sinatra staples at all. I’m too busy comparing these albums and sorting out all the Christmas confusion!
Chasing radio edits, rerecords, and single rarities must be quite a chore for the Chairman completist, I must say. Perhaps the album really is dead. With digital downloads, one can pick his preferred Sinatra seasonal tunes for a holiday soundtrack, the end. It saves you the confusion of pursuing Christmas Songs by Sinatra and A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra- though casual fans and serious collectors can easily find either. Heck, I just put all my Sinatra Christmas delights into one playlist and let it go- the swanky and spiritual light are perfect for the casual office or urbane dinner party. Sure, a song or two will repeat or sound different each time around, but so long as you don’t think too hard on the logistics, one can delight in the Man, the Meaning, and the Music. Whew!